The rock ‘n’ roll star once dubbed Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley is celebrating 50 years in show business. Welsh singer-songwriter, Shakin’ Stevens, is one of the biggest-selling UK artists of the 1980s, and he can still be found in the recording studio today.
He has lost none of the enthusiasm and vigour that made him a heartthrob during the peak of his success four decades ago. During his long career, he has had a multitude of platinum and gold discs, achieving an amazing 33 top 40 singles.
Now aged 70, he’s showing no signs of slowing down, having completed a 33-date tour, Echoes of Our Time, in 2017. Shaky, as he is nicknamed, is a devotee of the nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s and has remained true to his roots since forming his first band in 1968.
Shaky was born Michael Barratt in March 1948. The youngest of 11 children born to builder and former coal miner Jack and housewife May Barratt, in Ely, Cardiff, the young Michael was always interested in music, forming several bands while at school.
His first job was as a milkman, but he still dreamed of a career as a singer and played in amateur bands in his leisure time. In 1968, he formed his first professional band, called Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets, managed by promoter Paul Barrett, who came up with Shaky’s new stage name.
Paul specialises in managing 1950s-style rock ‘n’ roll artists and under his guidance, Shakin’ Stevens burst on to the music scene. The band was aided when rock legends the Rolling Stones booked them as a one-off support act at their Christmas gig in 1969.
Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets set about touring around the UK and Europe to build up a fan base. They were a big hit in Germany and Holland and won a recording contract in 1970 with Parlophone. Their debut album, A Legend, wasn’t a chart success, but it was the start of a long recording career for the former milkman turned rock star.
He continued to release records with the Sunsets, but they were only minor hits, although they were a popular live band. In 1977, Stevens, who was 29 at the time, won the lead role in the musical, Elvis, starring as Presley in his younger days, when he did his National Service.
The musical was scheduled to run for six months, so Shaky and the Sunsets’ touring was temporarily put on hold. However, the Jack Good musical was a huge hit and its run was extended for two more years, so Stevens split from the Sunsets permanently.
Once the musical ended, Stevens enjoyed massive success as a solo artist, releasing 69 singles, 37 music videos, 20 studio albums and 21 compilation albums.
His popularity was at its peak in the 1980s, when he had chart hits in Australia, Norway, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria and Poland throughout the decade.
Released in 1981, his biggest hit to date was This Ole House, as it achieved gold status. It was number one in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Sweden and firmly established his status as an international star.
The song wasn’t Shaky’s own material, as it was a cover version of a popular song written by Stuart Hamblen in 1954. Hamblen was a “singing cowboy” who was born in Texas in the USA in 1908. In the 1930s, he hosted the popular California radio programme, Family Album.
He also composed music and acted in movies with well-known cowboy stars such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and John Wayne. He was signed by the American arm of Decca Records in 1934.
Hamblen was the original wild man of music in the 1930s and ’40s, when he was frequently in trouble with the police for drinking and brawling. However, he was such a popular star that his radio bosses always bailed him out.
In 1949, Hamblen discovered religion, gave up drinking – and was subsequently fired from his radio show because he refused to broadcast the beer commercials! Instead, he turned to Christianity and started his own new radio show, The Cowboy Church of the Air, which was broadcast regularly until 1952.
This Ole House
In 1954, Hamblen’s version of This Ole House saw him return to his singing cowboy roots. He said he had been inspired to write the song while on a fishing trip with his friends.
He saw an old house in a state of disrepair, having been left empty following its owner’s death. The lyrics were rather sad, describing how the old house was once a family’s place of “comfort as we fought the storms of life”.
The narrator reminisces about how “this old house once rang with laughter”, but now it’s “gettin’ shaky” and “lets in the rain”. Despite its morose subject matter, it was performed in an upbeat manner, both by Hamblen and later by Shakin’ Stevens.
Following the huge success of This Ole House, Shaky had two further number one hits in 1981, You Drive Me Crazy and Green Door, both of which achieved gold status. The following year, he had another international number one with Oh Julie, which topped the charts in six countries, including the UK, achieving platinum status.
The singer has continued to record new music and tour to the present day. His latest studio album, Echoes of Our Times, was released in September 2016 and he completed his gruelling tour schedule in 2017, celebrating his 70th birthday on 4th March this year.
The star suffered a serious heart attack in July 2010 at the age of 62 and had a second cardiac arrest at his Buckinghamshire home at the age of 69, when his life was saved by CPR.
As a result, he has been visiting local schools around Cardiff to teach pupils CPR. He has also raised £1,000 to purchase a defibrillator to give something back to the community where he grew up.
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